April 27, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1244

Debate In Jordan On Syrian Refugees' Future In The Country - From Fear They'll Be Naturalized To Calls For Integrating Them Into Jordanian Society

April 27, 2016 | By Z. Harel*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1244


Since the onset of the war in Syria, refugees have flocked to Jordan. Some have been housed in refugee camps, but the vast majority settled throughout the country, burdening its society and economy - the latter of which is based primarily on foreign aid. Jordan has taken in massive waves of immigration over the years, mostly Palestinians and Iraqis, and with the influx of refugees from Syria is facing a huge financial burden as well as the demographic, social, economic, and political ramifications of their arrival and their presence.

Syrian refugees in Jordan (Image: 

The Jordanian media have been increasingly occupied with the issue of the Syrian refugees and their future in the kingdom, particularly following two major events. First, the Jordanian census, conducted in late 2015, showed that non-Jordanians comprise some 30.6% of the population, and that the approximately 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country now total about 13.2% of the population.[1] According to a special supplement in the official Jordanian daily Al-Rai on the issue of the Syrian refugees, 62% of them in Jordan are not registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), meaning that the organization is not bearing the expenses that they incur in the kingdom. Furthermore, some 80% of the refugees reside not in refugee camps but in Jordanian cities and villages, and therefore receive the same services, such as education and healthcare, as Jordanian citizens do.[2]

The second event was the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, held in London in early February 2016, on the issue of Syrian refugees in countries bordering Syria. The conference, sponsored by the UK, Kuwait, Germany, Norway, and the UN, was attended by 70 heads of state and international organizations.[3] Prior to the conference, Jordan made every effort to increase awareness of its situation: Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah II, met with officials from all over the world and explained in detail the economic and social challenges that Jordan is facing because of the refugees.[4] At the conference it was agreed to guarantee Jordan was $2.1 billion in grants for development of infrastructure and $5.7 billion in loans for reducing its deficit.

These two events sparked a lively public debate in Jordan on the issue of the refugees, including dozens of articles in the Jordanian press, where Jordanian writers discussed the ramifications of the refugee presence in the kingdom. Some were critical of the international community for making Jordan responsible for them while doing little to help either the refugees or Jordan. Many expressed concern that the refugees would be granted Jordanian citizenship, to the detriment of Jordan's existing citizens, and argued that the interests of Jordan and its existing citizens should take priority. However, following the London conference, several articles called for accepting the new reality and for seeking ways for Jordan to benefit from it.

This report will review the public debate in Jordan on the issue of the Syrian refugees: 

Concern For The Interests Of Jordan And Its Citizens, Fears Of Refugee Naturalization

A substantial part of the debate on the refugees centered on the need to deal with the problem while prioritizing the interests of the kingdom and its citizens. A common motif in statements by Jordanian officials, and in articles in the press, was that Jordan has already done much more for the refugees than its limited economic resources allow. The debate also focused on the duration of the refugees' stay in Jordan, highlighting fears that they would be naturalized. 

King Abdullah: We Are At The Limit Of Our Capacity To Bear This Burden

In his opening remarks at the Supporting Syrian and the Region Conference in London, Jordan's King Abdullah II spoke of how the Jordanian people have suffered because of the refugee crisis, saying: "...[L]ooking today into the eyes of my people and seeing the hardship and distress they carry, I must tell you: We have reached our limits. I represent the people of Jordan. Their well-being and safety are my first priority. Our country will continue to do what we can to help those in need, but it cannot be at the expense of our own people's welfare."[5]  

King Abdullah II at the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference (Al-Ghad, Jordan, February 5, 2016) 

On the eve of the conference, the king told the BBC in an interview that he expects the Syrian refugees to remain in Jordan for an extended period - "at least 17 years." He stressed that the aid Jordan would receive from the international community would also be crucial for Jordanian citizens, not just the Syrian refugees: "If we are going to create jobs for Syrians, and bring them as part of our labor force, I know it is sometimes considered, has been considered over the years, as unpopular. Refugees, when they come to a country will stay for a long period of time, UN figures say at least 17 years, so whether we like it or not Syrian refugees are going to be part of our country for some period of time to come. So they have to be integrated into the labor force, everybody knows that. But as we go to this conference, if you are going to create a job for Syrians, you have got to create more jobs for Jordanians. So we are going to this conference in that respect. You can't just do it for Syrians and ignore the Jordanians. That's part of the process..."[6]

In January, Jordanian Royal Court Chief Fayez Al-Tarawneh met with Jordanian intellectuals to discuss the Syrian refugee issue; his statements at that meeting caused a stir and sparked criticism. He called for a halt to complaints about the presence of refugees in the kingdom, and hinted that Jordanians must eventually accept the "Syrian element" in the country because it would likely be there for at least a decade.[7] In response, Jordanian MP Bassam Al-Batoush protested against Al-Tarawneh's use of the term "Syrian element," calling this a dangerous development in official discourse that prepares the ground for the naturalization of Syrian refugees in Jordan. He expressed concern about an obliteration of the Jordanian identity and about Jordanians becoming a minority in their own country.[8] At a parliamentary session following the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, several MPs expressed concern that the aid promised to the kingdom was conditional upon bringing refugees into the labor force, and demanded that the aid guaranteed to Jordan in the conference would be used to cover the budgetary deficit.[9]

This desire to give preference to Jordan's interests in dealing with the refugee crisis, as well as the fears regarding Jordan's future, were also apparent in the press. Several articles also expressed concerns regarding the permanent resettlement of refugees in the kingdom, the marginalization of Jordanian laborers by Syrian refugees in the job market, and of the kingdom's inability to bear the costs of the refugee presence. 

Columnist: "The Human Torrent, Which Could Drown Our Country And Harm Our Sovereignty, Terrifies Us"

Tareq Masarwa, a columnist for the official Jordanian daily Al-Rai, wrote about Palestinian and Iraqi refugees' settlement in Jordan, and warned that many Syrian refugees would likewise prefer to remain there permanently. He wrote: "The end of the fighting in Syria will not prompt all the refugees to return [there], since people, like trees, cannot live without putting down roots in the soil, particularly after years of living as refugees... When the Syrian war ends, many [refugees] will return, but many [others] will remain...

"We in Jordan are people of tolerance, honor, and Arabism, but the human torrent, which could drown our country and harm our sovereignty, terrifies us... Everyone is welcome, provided they do not harm the rights of Jordanians to their own country, and their exclusive right to defend its constitution, its army, its security, its stability, and its national honor."[10]  

Former Jordanian Minister: We Fear That The World Will Place The Burden Of Refugees On Jordan At The Expense Of Its Citizens

Former Jordanian government spokesman and minister of media and communication Samih Al-Ma'aytah, who now heads the board of directors of Al-Rai, also expressed apprehensions about granting the refugees citizenship in Jordan, based, he said, on past experience with Palestinian refugees. He wrote: "The term 'naturalization,' that is linked first and foremost to the Palestinian issue, is causing concern among the Jordanians. This is because it is the interest of the Zionist occupation to resettle the sons of Palestine outside its borders, so that they hold other citizenships and actualize their political and national rights at the expense of other countries and other peoples. Jordan and its citizens, and the Palestinians, are the main victims of the 'naturalization' issue, because it is only the Zionist side that stands to gain from it.

"Today, this [issue] is reemerging in the lives of the Jordanians, but in the context of the Syrian refugees. We have all begun to hear about ideas coming from others, informing the Jordanians that they have to prepare for the process of naturalizing their displaced Syrian brothers. And, as with all 'naturalization' efforts, in which the Jordanians have become well versed, they begin with a first dance [step], and we all know how they end. The first step in preparing the ground [for 'naturalization'] is to make us believe that because no solution for the Syrian crisis is on the horizon, our Syrian brothers will remain in Jordan forever, becoming elements in [its] economic, social, and demographic situation...

"We fear that the world, which opened its gates [to the refugees] cautiously and in a measured fashion, [now] wants to place the burden of this crisis on the countries that border Syria, chiefly Jordan, while taking advantage of these countries' economic situation. Naturalizing these millions will gradually become the [final] objective, that will [necessarily] come at the expense of the citizens of these countries and their rights to work, education, and healthcare - even at the expense of a safe life. This will be in exchange for aid and economic relief that might end at any given moment...

"Today maybe they say that we must [provide] employment [for the refugees] and tomorrow we will hear that [we must provide them] with temporary passports. The day after that, [they will demand equal rights] for the children of Jordanian women married to Syrian men.[11] The [aid] given to Jordan will not reach Jordanian [citizens], because the cost of hosting [refugees] is far greater than the [aid] provided by the international community - which is given today, but may not be given tomorrow."[12]  

Writer: Hosting Refugees Must Not Come At The Expense Of Citizens Of The Host Country

On the eve of the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, Al-Ghad writer Fahd Al-Khitan called for directing the conference first and foremost towards dealing with the interests of Jordan and its economy. He wrote: "Now that the [Syrian] crisis has entered its fifth year with no solution in sight, the countries hosting [Syrian refugees] and the international community must come up with a new, creative approach for dealing with this long-term challenge, and must manage a refugee crisis that will last many years, until Syria's security stabilizes. Therefore, they must start to think of replacing emergency aid programs with other frameworks that take into account a long stay by refugees [in their host countries], and that provide [them] with the chance of a dignified life.

"[However,] all this must not come at the expense of citizens of the host countries, whose suffering has increased as a result of the stiff competition for jobs and the state budget's inability to provide development needs and services to areas where the population has, in some cases, doubled, such as the cities and towns in the North...

"An unemployed Jordanian citizen will have a hard time seeing his Syrian brother hired for a project while he himself is not given the same opportunity. This situation will create, in the medium term, many problems and complications that we don't need..."[13]  

Columnist: In Job Market, Jordanians Should Take Priority Over Syrians

Al-Rai columnist 'Issam Qadamani also addressed the issue of hiring Syrian refugees in Jordan, arguing that when it comes to hiring, Jordanians should be prioritized: "The issue of hiring Syrian refugees in Jordan will be discussed at the donor conference in London [i.e., the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference], and has already been a main topic of discussion for UN officials who visited Jordan in recent weeks. But what of the hiring of Jordanians as well?...

"[I] support the notion that Syrians should be employed, as part of a job market that is open to all, but that preference should be given to Jordanians. This, however, will require large-scale and permanent investments and projects, open commercial trade routes, and markets that are ready for consumption [of goods]. These can only be achieved with true aid from the international community, without raising the bar of expectations. Jordan must not meet the demands of the international community if it does not meet its own needs."[14]  

Criticism Of Insufficient International And Gulf Aid For Jordan

Along with concern for Jordan's interests, several Jordanian writers criticized the international community, claiming that it itself was not doing enough to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, and that it was failing to provide enough aid to Jordan that was buckling under the weight of the refugee burden, leaving it to its own devices and even demanding that it take in more. Others complained that the Gulf states, despite their wealth, are not helping Jordan, and are themselves refusing to bring Syrian refugees into their job markets even though they hire large numbers of foreign laborers.[15]  

Al-Ghad Editor: International Aid To Jordan Is Insufficient

Jumana Ghanimat, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Ghad, criticized the scope of the aid guaranteed to Jordan at the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, calling it insufficient. She wrote that only a small portion of the aid - $2.1 billion - was in grants, while the rest - $5.7 billion - was in the form of loans: "The large scale of loans compared to grants proves that the world has yet to feel truly responsible for the refugees and for the suffering experienced by them and by their hosts. The Europeans should expect further movement of refugees in their direction, because the aid they provided is insufficient."[16]   

Al-Ghad Writer To UN Envoy: What Will You Offer Jordan In Return For Your Request That We Accept More Refugees?

Al-Ghad writer Fahd Al-Khitan criticized UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi's demand that Jordan increase the number of Syria refugees in its territory: "Mr. Grandi yearns for Jordan to agree to increase the number of Syrian refugees it accepts, 'without this affecting the security situation in Jordan.' In other words, the high commissioner wishes to be generous to the Syrian refugees, at Jordan's expense...

"Let's be reasonable, Grandi: A country with limited resources like Jordan, which must deal with dangers from every direction and with struggles to ensure its own stability, cannot let just anyone do as they please [there]. Let us ask, with all due respect: What aid have you up your sleeve for Jordan, in return for your request that we accept more refugees? Dozens of UN officials before you have already made a mockery of us - coming to Amman, visiting the Al-Za'atari refugee camp, praising our generous hospitality, showering us with compliments - and then leaving, with promises [to give us] millions [of dollars], of which we have so far seen nothing...

"Jordan's capability to absorb [refugees] cannot be exceeded - in fact, it already has been exceeded, and Jordan now has a grave demographic problem that prevents it from maintaining its open-border policy. This comes in addition to the harsh economic situation, and to the worrying indications that the Syrian struggle will be continuing for an unknown period of time. We realize that the solution to the Syria situation is not in the hands of Grandi and the UN; it is also not in the hands of Jordan, unless the international community intends to evacuate all Syria's residents [to Jordan] as a radical solution for the conflict. If this is the line of thinking, then we have already done more than our part."[17]  

"The London Conference" tells Jordan that it cannot have the aid it wants: "The eye sees [what it wants], but the hand cannot provide it" (Al-Ghad, Jordan, February 4, 2016)  

Al-Dustour Columnist: U.S., Europe Are Responsible For Refugees' Sorry State

Al-Dustour columnist Ibrahim 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Qaisi wrote:  that the wealthy U.S. and European countries are responsible for the Syria crisis, and rebuked them for complaining about the refugees who have arrived in the West: "Our country is a kind of refuge, and is expected to remain one at the expense of our livelihood, future, and security... We are not grumbling or complaining about the arrival of our brothers from Syria. On the contrary - they are brothers who escaped death and have arrived in Jordan. But who is it that expelled them, destroyed their country, and still delays finding a solution for the Syrian problem? It is the international community and the superpowers, led by the U.S. and Europe - who, despite their great economic capabilities, were angered... when a few Syrian refugees - not even half the number of Syrian refugees and other Syrians who came to Jordan - fled to their soil."[18]  

Senior Al-Rai Writer: Impoverished Jordan Houses Refugees, Wealthy Gulf States Do Not

After Al-Rai's publication of the 2015 Jordanian census statistics, senior journalist Fahed Al-Fanek, former Al-Rai board of directors head, complained about foreign countries' limited aid to Jordan, and also criticized the Gulf states's failure to help on this issue: "The initial data published by Al-Rai regarding the census show that Jordan, which lacks natural resources, including oil and water, and lives day to day thanks to foreign aid and grants it receives, has been given the role of warehouse for many who choose to leave their homeland and live elsewhere though they were not expelled or threatened... After every such wave [of immigration], donor countries quickly provided financial aid to Jordan to help it swallow this bitter pill, but then stopped the aid in anticipation of another wave.

"Why does Jordan open its gates freely to this intensive movement of refugees from Syria, while the wealthy Gulf states, which need workers and which import them from around the world, do not open their borders to Arab refugees[?] Especially considering that some of these countries are helping fund and support the violence in Syria, and should bear the consequences."[19]  

Calls For Accepting Reality Of Refugees Remaining In Jordan, And For Attempting To Benefit From It

Following the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, some accepted that the refugees would be remaining in Jordan for a long time, perhaps even permanently. They suggested leveraging this into benefit for the country by developing the labor market, transforming refugees into consumers buying local goods, and integrating them into industry and trade projects. 

Former Foreign Minister: Refugees Can Be Useful If We Utilize Aid Money To Create Jobs

Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Al-Mu'asher called on the country to benefit from the refugee crisis by coming up with a strategic development program using aid funds to create jobs for both Jordanians and Syrian refugees. He wrote in Al-Ghad: "It is not enough to demand additional foreign aid [from the international community], even though it is vital. It is more important that we use this aid to implement a development program that substantially increases the Jordanian economy's ability to create new jobs... If we do not use the additional money [from foreign aid], whatever its sum, to invest in development, which will jumpstart job creation for Jordanians and Syrians, then we will face a very difficult challenge in all senses, economic, security, and social...

"This crisis can be turned into an opportunity. We can benefit from the potential of the Syrian refugees, while at the same time creating jobs for Jordanians. But this requires a smart economic policy that does not tackle each issue individually, but rather as part of a comprehensive strategic perspective that takes into account these refugees' remaining among us for 20 years..."[20]  

Al-Ghad Columnist: Providing Refugees An Opportunity To Integrate Into Society Is A National Interest

Al-Ghad columnist Ayman Al-Safadi argued that providing Syrian refugees with an opportunity to integrate into Jordanian society was a national interest, and was also the only thing that would ensure that their impact on Jordanian society would be positive: "Jordan will not naturalize Syrian refugees. This is known to anyone versed in Jordanian politics. However, it is also a fact that most refugees will not be leaving any time soon...

"Thousands of the Syrians' children will grow up in Jordan. Educating them, and taking responsibility for providing them with tools to participate productively in society, are a [Jordanian] national interest. The alternative is living together with a huge number of frustrated, angry, and unproductive young people - constituting a social danger that begins with a heavier economic burden - dozens of times heavier - on the state, and will not end with the spread of crime and the creation of a miserable environment that terrorists will exploit to spread their falsehoods and lies...

"Today, we need a policy based on acceptance of the reality that the refugees are here to stay, for many years... Some have criticized the decision to find ways to employ them. Such criticism disregards the fact that giving them jobs is 10 times better than focusing on [providing] humanitarian aid, since they will surely remain [in Jordan] for who knows how long. Syrian refugees will not become Jordanian citizens, but they have already become a part of the society, influencing it as it influences them. Opportunities for education, employment, and dignified lives are the only guarantee that they will have a positive impact. This is in anticipation of the day when they can return to their homeland - [but] the wait for that day will be long."[21]  

Al-Ghad Columnist: Syrian Refugees Are A Source Of Income And A Chance To Build The Economy

Similarly, Ibrahim Ghuraiba wrote in Al-Ghad that the refugees should be integrated into the society and into the country, becoming a productive workforce that would benefit the country, expand its sources of income, and develop its economy: "We can translate the phenomenon of Arab refugees in Jordan into advancements in the economy, new sources of income, and more. The arguments [that they pose] an economic and social threat, or that they threaten the fundamental sources of income, are baseless, since the economy today relies on human resources more than on natural resources...

"Naturally, there is nothing wrong with asking for aid and grants to absorb the refugees, but this will not provide substantial help for the national economy or the refugees. But what can help both Jordan and the refugees is transforming the existing manpower into a source of income and business, so that it advances the economy and increases the refugees' [quality of] life, making them productive individuals who are helping both themselves and the country. This is not difficult [to do]...

"The Egyptians,'[22] Syrians', and others' entry into [Jordan's] job market will increase [the quality and quantity] of goods and services, foster competition, and protect the consumer. When refugees and non-citizen residents become a productive workforce, they create a series of revenues that will increase the GDP, [strengthen] the economy, and improve [quality of] life. This is because they will be consumers paying taxes, purchasing goods, renting, and consuming services and products, thus increasing the country's revenue, markets, and existing services, and adding additional income...

"It is known, of course, that an increase in the population also increases the opportunities to establish institutions, and [increases] the number of talented innovators and entrepreneurs. [It also] expands the markets, and streamlines industry and trade projects. In order to make the refugees a source of economic development and prosperity, we need nothing more than good intentions and a scrap of proper and honest management."[23]

* Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 31, 2016.

[2] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 2, 2016.

[3], February 3, 2016.

[4] Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh met with the EU's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels, which included 28 EU foreign ministers and King Abdullah met with UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi. Al-Rai (Jordan), January 19, 2016. Jordanian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation 'Imad Al-Fakhoury travelled to Germany and France. Al-Rai (Jordan), January 21, January 26, 2016. He also met with the international affairs advisor of the U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury to discuss American aid to Jordan. Al-Rai (Jordan), January 26, January 26, 2016.

[5], February 4, 2016.

[6], February 2, 2016.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 24, 2016.

[8], January 29, 2016.

[9] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 10, 2016.

[10] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 3, 2016.

[11] This is a reference to previous processes involving Palestinian refugees in Jordan. "Children of Jordanian women married to foreign men" is a common term in Jordanian media, and refers to the offspring of Jordanian women who married foreigners, mostly Palestinians. These men are not citizens, and their children also do not enjoy full citizen rights.

[12], February 6, 2016.

[13] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 31, 2016.

[14] Al-Rai (Jordan), January 31, 2016.

[16] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 6, 2016.

[17] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 20, 2016.

[18] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 4, 2016.

[19] Al-Rai (Jordan), January 13, 2016.

[20] Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 30, 2016.

[21] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 21, 2016.

[22] The late 2015 census data indicated that there are 636,000 Egyptian workers in Jordan. Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 31, 2016.

[23] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 20, 2016.

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